Monday, 1 October 2012

Modern sports photography techniques applied to ancient festival

We all like a good action photo and, in particular, if your kids play sports, you want to remember the moments by capturing them with your camera.

However, quality sports shots are somewhat difficult to come by. Most people have limited access to events to photograph, the further away you are from the event, the harder it becomes to capture the event in a pleasing manner and sports are an event where crowd control is important, not only for the crowd's safety, but for the players also.

Location, Location, Location!

You can only photograph things you can see. The closer you are to someone, the better you can see them… and sports are no different. You have to get as close to what you are shooting as you can.

Typically, for a photographer with a press pass, you can get to the sidelines or other similar locations. You generally will not be permitted on the playing field. Depending on the sport, you most likely will be limited to designated locations. For instance, at most football games, the media cannot shoot between the two 35 yard markers. For most people, the situation is even worse. You probably don't have press access and are stuck in the stands for your shots. But to get the shot get as close as possible

You also have to be familiar with the sport to be able to capture the moment. This means knowing where to position yourself for the best action. This is critical because of angular momentum that will be discussed in the section on freezing action. Not only does it matter with the subject, but the background. Look at what is going to be behind your subject.  So you need to position your self where the background is the most pleasing.

The Decisive Moment

Sports and Action photography is all about timing. It’s about reacting and its about being in the right place at the right time and being able to execute.

Each sport has predictable and unpredictable moments. For instance, in basketball, you will have opportunities to photograph layups, jump shots, free throws, etc. Understanding the timing of these predictable actions allows you to capture the peak moment, when the action is most dramatic.

By knowing these moments you can anticipate the action. This helps in two ways, one it helps you with focus, and secondly it helps you snap the shutter at the right time. The saying goes "If you see the action you missed it." This basically means if you wait for the soccer player to head the ball then press the shutter release, the ball most likely will be sailing out of the frame. You have to push the button before the action so that the mirror has time to flip out of the way and the shutter open and close. There is a delay between the image hitting your optical nerve and the shutter closing. You have to, through experience, learn what that time is and adjust for it.

Required Equipment

I always preach, "Its not the equipment but the photographer who makes the picture"  However with sports and action photography, having the wrong equipment means not getting the shots you want or need. The further away, the longer the lens is needed to capture the same image in the frame. Different sports require different lens lengths. For instance, basketball is generally shot from the baseline or sidelines near the baseline. You generally can get good results with an 100mm lens in this situation. However, by the time the players are at mid court, you need a 200mm to capture them. If they are playing under the far goal, a 300-400mm lens is needed to fill the frame well, yet for shooting a soccer game, a 300-400mm lens is needed for just about anything useful.
Generally, for a full frame camera, each 100mm in lens focal length gets you about 10 yards in coverage. This coverage means that on a vertical format photo, a normal human will fill the frame fairly well. Thus, if you are shooting Football from the 30 yard line with a 300mm lens, you will be able to get tight shots in an arc from the goal line to mid-field to the other 40 yard marker. As players get closer, your lens may be too long. Many photographers will carry two bodies with two different length lenses for this reason.
Lens speed is also a critical factor. The faster the lens, the faster the shutter speed you can use, which as the lens grows longer, this becomes even more important.

Most consumer grade long lenses and zooms have variable apertures, but most are F5.6 at the long end of the lens. F5.6 is good for outdoor day time shots, but becomes very inhibiting for night games and indoor action. Most people use lenses that are F2.8 or faster. These lenses are very expensive. A 400mm F2.8 sells for over $8000 US. They are also very heavy and bulky. Using a monopod is a life saver with these big lenses.

Besides these long lenses, you need a camera that can drive them. Today, most new cameras are auto focus. Auto focus makes this easier on us, but the AF systems are not fool proof. However AF comes in handy for a few sports. Hockey and Soccer involve many subject to camera distance changes. Motion is less predictable and these sports are some what harder to manual focus. Football, Basketball, and Baseball are quite easy to manual focus.

 When we are in Mongolia next year shooting the Naadam festival games I will be bringing my 50-200mm F2.8 and my 2x teleconverter for one body and I will also be bringing my 100-400mm F4.0 to F5.6 for my other camera body.

We will be filming, with a press pass, traditional Naadam festival events of wrestling, archery and horse racing, each very predictable sports in an enclosed stadium.


512 or 1024 wrestlers meet in a single-elimination tournament that lasts nine or ten rounds. Mongolian traditional wrestling is an untimed competition in which wrestlers lose if they touch the ground with any part of their body other than their feet or hand. When picking pairs, the wrestler with the greatest fame has the privilege to choose his own opponent. Wrestlers wear two-piece costumes consisting of a tight shoulder vest (zodog) and shorts (shuudag). Only men are allowed to participate. Each wrestler has an "encourager" called a zasuul. The zasuul sings a song of praise for the winning wrestler after rounds 3, 5, and 7. Winners of the 7th or 8th stage (depending on whether the competition features 512 or 1024 wrestlers) earn the title of zaan, "elephant". The winner of the 9th or 10th stage, is called arslan, "lion". In the final competition, all the "zasuuls" drop in the wake of each wrestler as they take steps toward each other. Two time arslans are called the titans / giants.

Horse racing

Unlike Western horse racing, which consists of short sprints generally not much longer than 2 km, Mongolian horse racing as featured in Naadam is a cross-country event, with races 15–30 km long. The length of each race is determined by age class. For example, two-year-old horses race for ten miles and seven-year-olds for seventeen miles. Up to 1000 horses from any part of Mongolia can be chosen to participate. Race horses are fed a special diet.

Children from 5 to 13 are chosen as jockeys who train in the months preceding the races. While jockeys are an important component, the main purpose of the races is to test the skill of the horses.

Before the races begin, the audience sings traditional songs and the jockeys sing a song called Gingo. Prizes are awarded to horses and jockeys. The top five horses in each class earn the title of airgiyn tav and the top three are given gold, silver, and bronze medals. Also the winning jockey is praised with the title of tumny ekh or leader of ten thousand. The horse that finishes last in the Daaga race (two-year-old horses race) is called bayan khodood (meaning "full stomach"). A song is sung to the Bayan khodood wishing him luck to be next year's winner.



Mongolian archery is unique for having not only one target, but hundreds of beadrs or surs on a huge wall. In this competition both men and women participate. It is played by ten-men/women teams who are given four arrows each; the team has to hit 33 "surs". Men fire their arrows from 75 meters away while women fire theirs from 65 meters away. When the archer hits the target the judge says uuhai which means "hooray". The winners of the contest are granted the titles of "national marksman" and "national markswoman".

To join us at this fantastic festival in July of 2013, but to also visit some of the oldest Buddhist Monasteries in the world, please check out the photography tour we have put together here.